Breaking the Borderlands of Function

5.3 / On Collecting

Breaking the Borderlands of Function

By Djinnaya Stroud December 10, 2014

The term “non-functional art” isn’t satisfying as an antonym for functional art. All art serves a function, even if that function is solely aesthetic. In 1790, Immanuel Kant declared in Critique of Judgment that opinions of taste are disinterested, in that they have no bearing on actual human needs. From that statement, a whole category of objects was relegated to the realm of functional art, or, even worse, not art. Public opinion has developed quite a bit since then, but the divide between functional art and disinterested art remains.  

One way to understand an object is to understand its place in the world. So what happens when those objects enter a collection? Art collecting is driven by investment and/or preservation. Some people collect art for financial reasons, hoping that it will appreciate in value, and others collect art to ensure that it remains in good care for the future. Most collectors are a mix of both. Functional artworks, if in use, do not adhere to either of those missions because, in their use, they risk devaluation or destruction. The collector of functional art makes a decision about whether to use a piece or to keep it merely as an aesthetic object.  

Sandy Simon. Lidded Tea Jar. Courtesy of TRAX Gallery. Photo: Robert Brady.

Sandy Simon’s perspective on collecting functional art is unique because she approaches it from many angles. She is a studio potter, she collects both functional and disinterested artwork, and she owns TRAX Gallery in Berkeley, which she established to give studio potters a gallery space in which to sell their work. Her mentor Warren MacKenzie often says, “Buy it, use it. If you break it, buy another.” They both design ceramics intended to be used, not merely observed and preserved. Simon elaborates, explaining that she mentally releases a work when it is purchased, and as such has no idea how much of her work makes it into regular use. She showed me one of her lidded teacups, pointing out how the cup was inspired by pyramid-shaped silk tea bags with tiny green leaf tags. She spoke of how if one did use it, the experience of feeling the point of the pour spout on the lip would be exquisite. The way she chooses to describe her work makes it clear that her intention when designing the object is directed with its use in mind.  

"To me, if you don’t use that vase, it’s dead. It has no life in it."

Nevertheless, some people do not use the functional work purchased from TRAX Gallery. A handcrafted object will always be more expensive than a mass-produced object that fills the same function, and many buyers are afraid of breaking an object that costs a certain amount of money. From collector to collector, the monetary marker at which it becomes uncomfortable to use a piece varies widely. Still, everyone seems to have a point at which fear of loss blots out the joy of use. Fear of use equates with fear of monetary loss, but installing a functional piece on a pedestal removes an element of the experience. The use of the work enables a greater understanding of it. Simon points out that, in using the piece, the collector is collaborating with the artist and expanding the creativity of the work. As someone plates food, s/he has the opportunity to expand on the vision of the maker.

Hans Coper. Vase without and with flowers; ceramic, 8 x 6 x 4 inches. Courtesy of Jeffrey Spahn Gallery.

Jeffrey Spahn is a Bay Area dealer in ceramic art, both sculptural and functional. When I met with him, Spahn showed me a vase by the renowned 20th-century British potter Hans Coper. The form itself was beautifully designed. In my hands it felt light, and the surface was textured but soft. The inside houses what appears to be a candleholder, a common misconception according to Spahn. By containing the stems in the center of the vase, the form keeps the flowers elevated. He explained how the lip of the vase keeps the flowers in a fan, instead of allowing them to spread into a cone. A closer look reveals that what appeared to be a wide base is actually a reservoir that provides more water to the flowers. A stunning sculptural object, the vase is even more impressive in its functional design; each element helps hold flowers in water. For Spahn, the experience of the vase isn’t complete until it is used for its intended purpose. He says, “To me, if you don’t use that vase, it’s dead. It has no life in it. Because it was made, it was designed, to have flowers in it. So I use it all the time!”

In her essay “Super-Objects,” craft theorist Louise Mazanti writes about craft objects as “contemplative wormholes” that connect quotidian life and art ideas. She posits that art that has aesthetic value but is tied to daily function, such as pots or blankets, serves to bridge the gap between day-to-day life and the art world.1 To physically use an art object on a daily basis takes that same radical wormhole to the next level. Using an art object activates the art experience in the daily life of the individual. It negates Kant’s ideas of disinterested beauty by highlighting where it is that opinions about taste, which Kant requires to come from a place unrelated to function, can actually be in direct conversation with human needs.

The visual experience is not always enough.

Spahn mentions a collector of Coper vases who would not even entertain the idea of using them. He says that they obviously bring her great joy and are very special to her. Her collection is made up of objects that were designed with great attention to their function but which now exist in an entirely sculptural context. He expressed to her his regret that she was not able to experience the expanded beauty that becomes apparent in their use. She argues that no one would go into someone else’s home and touch their paintings, while people don’t have that same reservation with ceramics.  

This claim rings true to me. I would never touch a painting in someone else’s home, but I do have to keep my hands buried in my pockets to keep from touching ceramics. I sense that touching a painting could damage it in a number of little ways, whereas ceramics is rather binary in its survival, either lasting for thousands of years with little wear or falling to the floor to break beyond repair. It goes beyond protection, though, as I have the same pocket-grasping experience with some non-ceramic craft art, as well. The visual experience is not always enough, only scratching the surface of what can be experienced and understood.

Part of Lois Anderson’s collections of non-functional and functional teapots. Courtesy of Lois Anderson.

The need to understand an object through its use drives many people who would never have been art collectors to amass functional work. Lois Anderson didn’t consider herself to be a collector, even though she had an extensive trove of functional artwork. One day she knew she had to have a specific non-functional piece, and it pushed her over the edge, beginning the expansion of her collection. She talks about the cup that she uses every morning, and about choosing her mismatched collection of plates and bowls based on the food that she cooks. However, she also says that if she had to save one item from her house in a fire, it would be River (1996) by Laura Corallo-Titus, a large oil painting that hangs near her collection of sculptural vessels. For her, disinterested art remains alive through interaction, through physically moving work around. Even the extensive dusting required makes her interact with the works and keeps them from settling into the background of her home. The act of cleaning is also an act of engaging with the art. While not the same experience as bringing a cup to your lips, it also creates a window between the art piece and day-to-day life.  

The distinctions between functional work and disinterested work are not clear-cut.  Instead, the two ideas pull against one another in a shared territory. Consider the case of the woman who has six Shoji Hamada plates for her table. She definitely considers herself a collector, but she might not consider those plates as part of her collection. In the case of Anderson, she didn’t consider herself a collector until she purchased a non-functional teapot. The real questions of how function influences the collector’s experience exist in the place where the functional and the disinterested collide. For Spahn’s friend who collects Coper vases for display purposes only, using the vase would take it out of a special art realm where it resides. Collecting is not just preserving art or investing in art, but is also part of how collectors create identity. After all these conversations, I still believe that something is lost when functional artwork is removed from its original purpose—maybe more so if collecting is, in part, identity building.  

To hold something in your hand is to know it in a way that is beyond that knowing.

To experience the things you love in a way that goes beyond the visual is to understand them in a non-rational way. Kant’s declaration that an object needs to be disinterested in order to be beautiful was part of his quest for a system of rational knowing. To hold something in your hand is to know it in a way that is beyond that knowing. Craft objects are haptic by nature in that they converse with their audience through touch. Creators feel the making of these objects in their hands, and it requires an interaction with more than just the eyes to understand them. Simon observed that a ceramic sculpture is experienced through seeing and maybe through touch. Functional pottery is something that you experience through as many senses as possible: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.  The knowledge gained from that multisensory experience goes beyond a visual understanding of the object.    

Simon also points out that this sort of experience requires a person to slow down. Functional ceramics can be part of a quiet cup of tea or a festive cheese plate. They always seem to have a celebratory nature—a sense of something special. “We all want to be special,” Spahn said. Disinterested work in a collection lets the owner display their identity, their specialness to others. Functional artworks let them integrate that identity building into the rituals of everyday life.  

Notes

  1. Louise Mazanti, “Super-Objects,” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 59-82.

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